The Year Off


I KNEW LIFE wasn't going to be easy on the outside, especially when on the morning of commencement I found that my good ol' run-of-the-mill, blend-into-the-crowd cap and gown had, presto-chango, become a considerably fancier, stick-out-like-a-sore thumb Juris Doctor gown and cap two sizes too small for my head. At the time I confess I wasn't aware of the foul-up, but when I saw none of my neighbors wearing similar get-ups, I got a little concerned. "Oh, god! I'm a freak," I thought. "I'll look like a clown with this ridiculous cap, the velvet stripes on the sleeves, and the purple curlicues on the front."

I made it through the morning, joking about the mix-up and getting a lot of mileage out of the situation as well as some curious stares from classmates and proud parents. My friends assured me that my diploma would be in its folder (it was), and before long the day was over and I was beginning to realize I would have to get a job for the year off I was taking before law school.

I had been reading the Globe want-ad section assiduously for three months after returning to Boston in September from California with no results. Had I wanted to be a taxi driver, clerk-typist, or management trainee with Jack-In-The-Box I would have been in fat city, but since I was looking for something a bit more meaningful I was getting nowhere. One day I saw an ad that sounded appealing: EARN UP TO $160 A WEEK (BASED ON PRODUCTIVITY), it said, directing its cleverly worded pitch to those between school, out of school, and between the ages of 18 and infinity. I called the number, and set up an interview with some guy in a run-down office building a couple of blocks from South Station.

I was desperate, so I listened to this guy's spiel, convinced him that I was the man for the job, knowing very little about the specifics but vaguely aware at that point that I was going to be selling encyclopedias door to door. Hold it, did he say encyclopedias? Come on, a Harvard graduate, you've got to be kidding. The whole set-up reminded me of the ads on TV for computer schools, conservation schools ("wear the badge of authority, protect nature and arrest violators") and the like. In other words, a con.

It was in the end an amusing and educational experience. I went down to the office--a fly by night operation for sure--a couple of afternoons that week after having committed to memory the sales pitch, a bunch of patronizing crap that was hard to swallow. But what counted was that I would be gainfully employed, and eligible for parole after three months in a hell on earth existence at home, or so I thought.


I soon discovered that most of my classmates were certified low-grade morons, barely able to read, much less memorize and deliver a lengthy presentation to total strangers. Fred Fadukas, the bloke on my right, looked like something out of Famous Monster Magazine--truely grotesque--with a speech impediment to boot. He did not return after the second class. Betty Sue Bumptious, a 250-pound beauty, was worse. Couldn't even remember her own name: When the supervisor asked her to recite her speech, she hadn't even memorized the first line, and couldn't manage to repeat it when the supervisor read it to her.

The following Monday was my first official day on the job. I was to "observe" a seasoned salesman in a typical evenings work. Instead of an experienced salesman, however, I was paired with a 19-year old college dropout from Cambridge in the same boat as me, living at home and wanting to get out. He didn't impress me as being too on the ball, but I went along with what he said, and we drove out to Arlington to look for likely "territory" to work that night.

After finding a suitable area--mostly two-family jobs where people might be conned by a smooth talking hustler into buying a $500 set of encyclopedias sight unseen--Bill turned out not to be much of a hustler. In fact, he was a pathetic salesman. He wasn't exactly of the confidence-instilling variety and most assuredly was not the type I would want to let into my house on a dark, freezing cold night to shoot some bull about "education changing since we were kids, what with the new math, computers, and the like." He frightened one lady so that she wouldn't even open the door. One old biddy got pretty insistent, trying to find out what two total strangers were doing on her doorsill that Bill, God bless him, retorted--completely in jest of course--that "we aren't mad rapists, lady."

We had just finished talking to some nurses when Officer Muldoon, at least a close facsimile of the Fred Gwynne character but three times more dense, barged into the building we were soliciting, asked us if we had been sneaking around the neighborhood telling people we were rapists and stranglers, and not waiting for an answer whisked us out to a fleet of waiting squad cars. After manacling both of us, he threw us in the back seat, and while an Arlington townie gave us a few free elbows to the jaws, packed us off to the station house.

Jesus, what had we done, I asked the officer. He explained that they had gotten a second complaint (besides the lady who called the police to say that we had told her we were mad rapists) from the woman next door to the house where we were arrested. Seems we had come to her door and told her we were stranglers (Bill had a habit of telling folks, when asked to identify himself, that he was a stranger). You've got to be kidding.

Nope. We were booked for disturbing the peace--I had not said a word the whole evening--and thrown in the clink next to a wino drying out. What's a jail without a drunk in the next cell?

We had our day in court a month later and the charges were dismissed. The police, reluctant to admit that they had bungled horribly, pressed the charges to the bitter end, perhaps because the second complainant was none other than the wife of the arresting officer, a patrolman with a penchant for arresting people on such ridiculous pretexts as breaking tree branches. I quit; sold stereos for a month; worked on a cigarette promotion handing out sample packs to promote national cancer week; got into law school; found a summer job with a PR firm; finally moved into an apartment; and had my car stolen. But I can't help thinking that a peculiar commencement had a lot to do with it all.

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